Figboot dearly loved to paddle along the shores of Lake Vastbegone.
Removing the boots for which he was famous, he’d wriggle his naked toes in the mud and enjoy the soothing squelch on his calluses. The fish would nip at his nails, giving them a bit of a trim, he supposed, and sometimes – sometimes – a pike or carp or catfish or large eel would get lodged between a pair of toes. Usually one of the big ones and the one next door.
Slippery little beggars. He’d have to squat down and gently dig them loose with a finger, trying to prod it back into the lake without squashing it. He didn’t believe in killing anything unnecessarily and he wasn’t much for food that swam. Besides, they were the smallest of small fry, and wouldn’t have filled one of his tooth cavities.
Oh, but he loved that mud. He’d pull his boots back on with some of the stuff still caking his toes and clinging to his soles. Like cool, slimy socks.
The bigger the heart, his mum used to say, the simpler the pleasures it takes to keep it happy.
Figboot had a huge heart. And only modest-sized feet, but he liked to take extra care of them because they were the only pair he was ever likely to own and he did a great deal of walking on them. A spot of lovely mud was a treat for the both of them.
One summer night he’d left his boots off. Walked home along the lake shore, carrying his boots slung over his shoulder, allowing each foot to leave an equal number of impressions in the mud. Like they were signing their names, one after the other, over and over again.
He’d sighed blissfully as he’d suppered and then laid his head on the pillow that night. Yes, it had been a good night’s walk for him and his bare feet.
Little did he ever imagine such a tremendous amount of trouble arising from such simple pleasures.
But then, it had never occurred to him that humans might build a town in one of his footprints.
Funny little creatures.
“I’m telling you, a star fell from the heavens!”
“Fiddlesticks and gravy boats!” declared Burgermeister Chaffinch, who plainly believed both things belonged in the same category. “Stars do not fall. I have no idea what keeps them up. I daresay some very different effects to those that keep me up at night, but if they were in the habit of being dislodged we’d be bombarded by them on a nightly basis.”
The Burgermeister hammered the tavern table with his gavel. “Now, let’s have some order here and some sensible eye-witness accounts. You! You there!”
Sigfred pointed hesitantly at his chest, because it seemed as though the Burgermeister was addressing him.
“Yes. You, boy. Young – Sigfred, isn’t it?”
“Yes, your worship. Although I generally go by Siggy, on account of their being two Sigfreds in the village. The other going by Fred.” Siggy searched the crowded room, saw a big rosy apple of a head bobbing above the others in the barrel, so to speak, and gave Fred a wave. “There he is, sir.”
“Never mind Fred.” The Burgermeister leafed through some crumpled papers. “I have a note here says you were out in your boat at the time of the blaze. You must have had a good view from out on the water.”
“That I did, your worship.” Siggy puffed out such a breath as to blow the frothy head off his beer. “T’were a terrible sight.”
“I am aware of how terrible it was, thank you, my lad. My town hall was one of the main buildings to go up in flames.”
Siggy mumbled an apology. He’d known that – it was one reason why the Burgermeister had scheduled this emergency inquiry in the tavern – and he should have watched his words more carefully. Trouble was, with the way the gods had arranged people’s faces it was devilishly tricky to watch the things that spilled out of your own mouth, specially when they could only be heard and not seen.
When he’d moored his boat at the jetty, the whole town had been running, it seemed, to the Big Toe district with buckets in hand. But too late. From what he gathered, ninety percent of the buildings had burned to the ground. He didn’t know yet whether that meant nine out of ten buildings or that ten percent of every building was still standing. If the latter, he could only guess what rickety structures there were all across Big Toe. And he thanked the stars he lived all the way down at Heel.
And now, while he thought of his gratitude to the stars he also reckoned it was time to speak up on their behalf. You couldn’t go thanking them in one breath then sitting idly by as others condemned them for starting fires they didn’t start.
“Well, your worship,” said Siggy, “it weren’t no star.” He wagged a finger the way he’d seen sager, older fishermen do when relating far-fetched yarns they intended folks to take seriously. “T’were more like a spark from a fire.” He cast his mind back, very like casting his nets out in the boat and hoped to trawl in memories of a worthwhile size and quality. “Tis true, I was out in my boat. Nothing but stillness and darkness and wetness all around. Peace and quiet, but for the lapping of the water at the hull. Not the sort of night anything happens, I remember thinking to myself.” Or did he? That might’ve been a detail his head had added in later. No matter. “Anyway, I was looking up along the western shore, your worship. Not towards town. To Tortoise Mountain, sir.” He referred, of course, to the headland where Figboot lived. But there was no need to add that in – everyone knew that. “And strange as strange can be strange, for such a still night and clear skies, well, there appeared to be a storm brewing high over Figboot’s place.”
“A storm? On a clear night?”
“I know, sir. Couldn’t hardly believe it myself. The skies were clear, as you observe, sir. And that’s how come I can tell you the stars weren’t doing anything out of the ordinary like falling or anything, sir. But I tell you what did fall.” He wagged his finger again, to underline the truth of what his account. “A spark, your worship. A spark like from your own hearth, spat out on your best rug. And it swooped, sir, like a diving bird. Down in a big arc, higher than any seagull, curving down onto the town. I followed it with my own eyes, sir, and I saw it alight on a big old roof. And in alighting on it, it set it alight.”
He did remember thinking that of all the big rooftops in Big Toe the spark had settled on the biggest. And really his command of local geography should have been up to working out that it had been the town hall.
“Thank you, young Sigfred,” said Burgermeister Chaffinch. And he clenched a fist around the rest of the crumpled papers, crumpling them beyond repair. “The town thanks you for your full and honest account. And I, for one, am satisfied as to the instigating source of the fire.”
Sigfred would not be satisfied if it had been his house on fire. He considered the Burgermeister’s attitude gracious and generous under the circumstances.
The Burgermeister hammered the table with his gavel once again, although there had been no ruckus to quieten down. “As such, our response has been decided for us. Sigfred will go to Figboot and confront the giant and demand compensation for this disaster.”
Sigfred puffed heavily, but there was no more froth to be blown from his pint. He raised his glass and mouthed a toast to Fred over there across the room.
It was a brave chap indeed who got volunteered to go confront Figboot.
[To Be Continued…]